Blunt words from Pope Francis

In holiday messages at this time of year, the boss usually musters the energy to say nice things to the people who work for him. Even if he’s exasperated by the performance of his employees or beset by arrogant bullies on the corporate rungs above him.

That’s the generosity of the Christmas spirit, right?

But what if the boss used this holiday interlude not to extol the good but to point out in withering detail his subordinates’ personal shortcomings?

And what if that message resonated well beyond the boss’ workplace, so that all of us could read his remarks and, gulp, see ourselves in the unflinching mirror that he held aloft?

You may have guessed that we’re talking about Pope Francis’ extraordinary Christmas message on Monday.

Instead of a traditional message of charity and hope, Francis excoriated the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Vatican. He accused them of knuckling under to 15 ailments and temptations, including greed, jealousy, hypocrisy, cowardice and, in a memorable phrase, “spiritual Alzheimer’s.”

He talked about “the terrorism” of gossip, which he labeled a disease that could destroy a reputation “in cold blood.” He urged them to be “conscientious objectors” to gossip.

He blasted prelates for vainglory, for amassing wealth and leading double lives that he said could lead to “existential schizophrenia.”

The critique “left many of the assembled clerics clearly uncomfortable,” the Religious News Service reported. We bet.

Yes, the pope’s stinging words were aimed at a specific group of people under his command. And it’s tempting to dismiss the workplace lecture of a pope, who, after all, already has a lifetime job and no worries of being fired. He doesn’t have to fret about the terrorism of gossip or whether he can afford to put a new iPad under the tree.

But what Francis said invites all of us to take a moment from the dizzying rush of these holidays to take a deep breath and think about the life we lead, the way we treat friends and foes, the things we do to get what we seek.

The pope took aim at “the sickness of considering oneself ‘immortal,’ ‘immune’ or ‘indispensable.’ … It is the sickness of the rich fool who thinks he will live for all eternity, and of those who transform themselves into masters and believe themselves superior to others, rather than at their service.” Those who do think they’re immortal, Francis said, should visit a cemetery and gaze on the graves of others who shared that illusion.

He counseled his audience to work as a team and to avoid turning into “procedural machines” through overwork.

We all navigate through life as best we can. But we also gossip. We envy others. We chase the latest gadgets, the bigger home, the fancier car. These are normal impulses that can be channeled for good or ill, for healthy pursuit or destructive obsession. The pope’s words invite us to examine how we live, how we pursue our goals and — most important — how we treat others.

Francis addressed another group on Monday as well: the Vatican staff, including gardeners and cleaning workers. The pope thanked them for their labor and asked “forgiveness for the shortcomings of my colleagues and myself, as well as for some scandals, which do great harm.”

“Forgive me,” he said.

 Those are handy words in the world today. You aren’t perfect. You won’t live forever. You’re going to hurt people’s feelings, make mistakes and blunder into messy situations. But what values will you invoke? What choices will you make?

This wasn’t an exclusively Roman Catholic message, or even a particularly religious message. It’s advice to all of us, on how all of us lead our lives.